Thursday, May 26, 2011

In retrospect, the Twins offseason looks smart

I think most fans would admit that there is nothing realistically the Twins could have done in the off-season to prevent the current debacle. They would have needed to find a better catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, DH and fourth outfielder. And that's just to repair the every day players. Between injuries and poor performance there they have really only had major league performance from two positions - center field and right field. No one believes this team would be contending if they just had Hudson and Hardy back in the middle infield. Of course, in addition to fixing the worst offense in baseball, they would have had to improve the pitching by adding three or four arms to the bullpen. 

The problem is that had they actually attempted to fill some of those spots with proven veterans, they would now be saddled with a much older lineup and a lot less flexibility for the future. Crain, Fuentes and Guerrier cost the teams that signed them over $30 million. If the Twins need to rebuild, that kind of salary commitment to aging relievers would be an albatross. Likewise, Hardy and Hudson are players whose best years are probably behind them. Which seems to be the consistent strategy the Twins follow every off-season. They try to replace older players with younger players while maintaining the team's competitiveness. That strategy may make even more sense in a year like this, which looks like a debacle, as it does in years when the Twins are contenders. Just imagine if the Twins had taken "a roll of the dice" on this year as some fans argued. They would have come up snake eyes with a likely devastating effect for the future, constrained by both budget and age to another decade of struggles like the late 90's.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Twins are NOT out of it ... yet

While the Twins are not really out of the race at this point, there are very good reasons to think they are. They have not been "unlucky" on the field. They have scored the fewest runs in the league and given up the most runs. They really have been as bad as their record. Their bullpen is a mess, their defense is marginal and the offensive production hasn't been there even from players not on the DL. So obviously for the Twins to compete, they are going to have to play better than they have. There are some reasons that is possible, and I will get to those later.

While the Twins have dug themselves into a hole, the argument from some statistical gurus that they can't dig themselves out is weak at best. They are 14.5 games behind Cleveland in first, but only 8.5 out of second. If Cleveland continues to win at their current pace, then  they are going to run away with the division. But there are lots of reasons to believe that is unlikely. If, instead, they are a .500 team the rest of the way they will end up 88-74. For the Twins to match that they will need to win 72 games. That requires a winning percentage of .626 the rest of the way. That is certainly possible for a team with the Twins apparent talent at the start of the season. And, of course, its possible Cleveland's performance will fall to the sub-500 level many projected for it going into the season. The point here is really that with all 5 teams all hovering around .500, the eventual division winner may not be very far above that.  

Which  brings us to the question of what needs to happen for the Twins to get back in the race:

1) Mauer needs to be in uniform and hitting as expected
2) Morneau needs to hit like the MVP he has been in the passt
3) Perkins, Mijares and Nathan need to fill the setup roles
4) Nishioka needs to fill one of the middle infield spots
5) Delmon Young needs to hit like he did last year
6) Thome needs to not be finished
7) Span and Kubel need to keep hitting

Of course, other stuff can and will happen for good and bad. But if the other stuff evens itself out and those seven things happen, the current team is capable of a very long run of hot baseball. Its not likely the Twins are going to get back into the pennant race. But it is very far from impossible as some bloggers have recently suggested.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One inning closers

One of the controversies out there, generated largely be the statistics crowd, has been over when and how to use your "closer".  Mike Capps struggles in multi-inning saves just reinforces the fact that statistical averages and projections based on them have very little value when looking at individual performance. 

The invention of the late inning closer is sometimes attributed to Tony Larussa when he moved Dennis Eckersley into the bullpen. But late inning closers were already pretty common before then. Older Twins fans will remember Ron Davis struggles in that role in the early 1980's before Dennis Eckersley ever saved his first game. What Larussa did show was that by limiting a good pitcher to one inning at a time you could get outstanding results. 

There are several reasons this works. Fans, especially statistically oriented ones, look at pitches thrown, batters faced or "innings pitched" to evaluate pitchers work loads. They don't pay much attention to the work involved in getting warmed up. But warming up is not inconsequential. And the effect is probably not linear. After a pitcher has warmed up once and pitched briefly, warming up a second time probably adds more to the strain on arm and body than the first time around. Of course there are a lot of factors that will influence that including the weather, how much they pitch, how long they are on the bench and the pitcher's own body. But it is important to remember that a closer who pitches to even one batter in the 8th, or even warms up in preparation to pitching in the 8th, is getting a lot more extra work than that brief appearance in the game might indicate.

So there are physical implications to using your closer starting in the 8th. But, perhaps more important, is the psychological impact. Coming into the game with the idea that when you leave the mound it will be over is a very different task than coming into the game and knowing you will have to come back out again the next inning. It means that instead of putting everything into a single pitch in a critical situation, the pitcher needs to consider how that might effect his performance the next inning. Suddenly the lights out closer in to finish the game, becomes a setup guy trying to eat up innings. Worse, unlike the real setup guys, there is no one who is going to come to his rescue if he can't get the job done. 

While I don't think you can draw a firm conclusion that Capps struggles are a result of being used in the 8th. It may be that was the situation in three of his four blown saves is just a coincidence. But there are reasons Larussa's use of Eckersley has been mimicked ever since. It seems to work much better than having your closer be his own setup main.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More Sabermetric Gibberish

If you want to understand the problem with a lot statistical analysis in baseball go over to Twinkie Town and read this "analysis" of the value of "pitching to contact".

There are a whole series of analytical errors in the story, but it starts by trying to answer a question no one has asked: 

"The bottom line is, compared to strikeouts, "pitching to contact" actuallyincreases pitch counts, for the simple reason that a strikeout (other than the rare occasion when the batter reaches base on a wild pitch or passed ball on strike three) is a guaranteed out, while a batted ball that is put in play has over a 30% chance of resulting in the batter reaching base with a hit or an error, requiring another (or another, or another, etc) at bat to record that one out."

There aren't many people who doubt that whatever approach a pitcher takes, getting the batter out is better than not getting the batter out. When Ron Gardenhire or a pitching coach urge pitches to "pitch to contact", they aren't suggesting they should serve up gopher balls. They are suggesting the pitcher should throw strikes that the batter is likely to swing at and will result in a weak pop fly or  ground balls that the fielders will turn into an out. That  approach of pitching to contact may result in a ball in play, but it may also lead to a strikeout or walk. Likewise, trying to strike every batter out may lead to a walk or ball in play. In fact, vven the most successful strikeout pitchers only get one third of their outs by strike out. The other two thirds of the outs result from balls put the ball in play despite their efforts to strike the batter out.

This article attempts to prove pitching to contact is a bad idea by lumping together all those failed efforts to strike batters out with successful efforts to induce poorly hit balls. And ignoring the walks that result from either approach. It suffers from a common affliction of sabermetrics. It confuses the testing of a hypothesis, the core of scientific inquiry, with proving a point.

MLB Twins Updates